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More Than Words: Why Writers Needn’t Sweat Word Count

What’s the most common bit of advice you’ll hear experienced writers give folks who’ve come more recently to the craft? Probably a variation of the following:

“Write every day. Put your butt in the chair and write. If you don’t write every day, you’re not a real writer.”

There’s a related bit of shorthand wisdom out there, granted Natural Law status after appearing in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, that seems to shore up the preceding advice:

“It takes a 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field.”

You might have seen that put another way:

“Your first million words are crap.”

Given all that, it’s easy to see why writers might put it all together and decide word count is something they should carefully track.

After all, we want to be “real” writers. We want to say we’ve blown past that million-word mark. And don’t forget the handy (if increasingly outmoded) industry-standardized word quotas for various story forms and genres. “Where am I in my work in progress? Well, I’ve written 30,000 words, and Writer’s Digest says…”

The obsession with wordcount has given rise to things like “Write or Die,” the magic spreadsheet, and the one million words in a year challenge. And that’s all great… these are tools that encourage community, solidarity, and maybe friendly competition among writers. There’s something to be said for that.

In practice, though, tracking word count is among the least important metrics in measuring your progress, either for your current work or for your career.

Writing Is More Than Adding Words To A Manuscript

You know that time spent butt-in-chair (well, I work standing up, but you get the idea), hands-on-keyboard, adding words to a manuscript?

At MWS Media, that’s called “typing.”

It’s certainly one of the things writers do to finish a work, but it’s hardly the only thing. Depending on your preferred process, it might even be the least important thing.

Think about all the other things you do that go toward completing a work of creative writing:

  • Research
  • Brainstorming
  • Character development
  • Outlining / planning
  • Editing

Every minute you spend doing any of the above steals dozens of words from your eventual million.

And yet.

All of the above, in one form or another, goes into your work as surely as do words on the page.

So why don’t we measure the time spent on those things? Why don’t we assign the same value to an hour of hard, deep thinking as we do an hour of typing two thousand words?

All word count tells us is your rough typing speed. That and the ability to make a martini will get you in the secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Congratulations.

Don’t Just Count The Count

Mark this well:

If you spend dedicated time and energy pursuing the completion of a written work, you are a writer. So long as the effort eventually results in a completed work, the time spent on that effort is time you are writing.

Count hours. Count the effort. Count the number of works you finish and ship. You shouldn’t care if you actually add thousands of words to the manuscript every single day, or if you haven’t typed a word in a week. If you spent that week working on the piece, you spent it as a writer.

But What About Tracking My Work In Progress?

Isn’t word count a good way to discern how far along you are in your work?

Maybe. If you’re writing to a specific word count goal (for example, your editor told you they want a 90,000 word novel), then sure, you need to know where you are. It’s worth mentioning that if you’re 50,000 words in and you haven’t reached the middle of act two, you have a bigger problem than reaching your word count… but yeah, word count can be a useful yardstick for certain things.

Personally, when I’m working on larger works like my recently completed second novel, I prefer scene count, but getting into that risks a digression that is better suited to its own post.

The point I want you to take away from this is: Do not judge your progress (or lack thereof) on word count alone.

Celebrate The Entire Process

I’d love to see writers celebrating their writing activity by touting something other than word count. Things like:

  • Time spent brainstorming
  • Number of character sketches completed
  • Pages edited
  • Scenes or beats outlined
  • Locations researched
  • Calories burned (some say it’s 100 per hour spent writing… your mileage may vary!)

If you’re on Twitter, tell the world what you’ve accomplished as a writer other than words typed. Use the hashtag #notjustwordcount so everyone else can be inspired by your example! And be sure to say “hey” to me there… I’m @mattselznick!

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